Time may be running out for one of Mill Avenue’s most beloved features, the ficus tree. The aging trees probably have only a decade of life left in them, their caretaker says, because of their unforgiving urban environment.
City arborist Steve Amelotte thinks he can get perhaps 20 more years out of them with proper care. But he’s preparing for their deaths even sooner to be safe.
Amelotte bought nearly 100 trees last year and is nurturing them to replace the 120 ficus trees that have become essential to downtown’s character.
The trees may not have been the best choice for Mill Avenue, Amelotte said this week while he explained the problems of having ficus trees in an urban area.
But as he walked under the canopy of trees and pointed at the rich green streetscape, he said he couldn’t imagine Tempe’s famous Mill Avenue without ficus trees.
“People love this,” Amelotte said. “They say, Look at all this shade.”
Tempe planted the trees in 1985 as part of a decadeslong effort to rejuvenate Mill. They’ve become as much a part of Mill’s character as the red brick sidewalks — or the historic Hayden Flour Mill.
The city chose the ficus trees because of their stately feel and because they’re popular in Southern California downtowns.
But the ficus isn’t a perfect tree.
They’re notorious for aggressive roots that heave streets and sidewalks, though Amelotte said he thinks Tempe averted that by installing a root barrier with each tree. Arizona’s blistering summers can sunburn the trees, especially the way they’ve been pruned to expose signs on buildings. Frost can nip the treetops.
And birds love the trees in winter. The droppings cover the sidewalks — and sometimes pedestrians — and have been a big source of complaints. Amelotte is trying several new things to chase away the birds and hopes for a big reduction this winter.
The trees are too popular to suggest replacing them with anything else, Amelotte said. So late last year, he bought 96 ficus trees in 15-gallon pots. He moved them into bigger containers and will continue to do so as they grow.
He’s shaping them so they branch out about 8 feet above the sidewalks and 15 feet above the street.
The trees on Mill now branch out lower than they should, but Amelotte’s pruning techniques will create a designer ficus.
“It’s developing a tree just for Mill Avenue,” Amelotte said.
The trees are at a city park and should be ready in four to five years. By then, the city will replace a few damaged trees, but Amelotte said most will stay in containers much longer. He hopes to have a small forest of 20-foot trees ready as existing trees die.
Ficus trees can live 100 to 150 years in a forest, but only 40 to 45 years in this setting, Amelotte said. The trees were about eight years old when planted, which means they have 10 to 15 years left.
The trees weren’t watered, fertilized or pruned properly for years, which put a lot of stress on them. Since Amelotte took over maintaining the trees five years ago, he’s changed their care and said they are healthier.
Amelotte didn’t want to second-guess the decision to plant ficus. But he said he would have preferred several species of trees, placing each type in the spot where it would be best suited, considering sun, space limitations and other factors.
John Terborg, a salesman at A&P Nurseries, said ficus trees attract too many birds for a place with outdoor dining.
Their size can become a problem, too, he said. Terborg likes the shade and rich green leaves, but he would have preferred a mix of desert trees and palms instead of ficus.
“I wouldn’t have put them in a public place like that,” he said.
But the owner of Whitfill Nurseries loves the ficus on Mill.
“I think the ficus tree is a nice tree,” Brian Whitfill said. “I think it sets the stage and the character for Mill Avenue.”
Whitfill has sold Tempe some ficus trees over the years and was surprised to hear that the city plans to replace them.
Whitfill expects the city will end up selling many of those trees because they won’t die as quickly as the city arborist’s projection.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if those ficus didn’t outlive everybody on Mill Avenue,” Whitfill said.
By the numbers
120: Number of ficus trees on Mill Avenue
1985: Year they were planted 100-150: Life expectancy of ficus in native setting
40-45: Expected life of ficus trees on Mill
7-8: Age of trees when planted
10-15: Approximate years trees may have left to live
20-25: Years a city arborist hopes the trees will survive with proper care 96: Number of trees the city bought as eventual replacements
20: Height, in feet, that the city wants replacement trees to be when planted
40: Height, in feet, some of the trees are now